Researchers at Montreal's McGill University found soy makes the most nutritionally balanced plant-based milk when compared to almond, rice and coconut varieties. Their study was published in the January issue of the Journal of Food Science and Technology.
The scientists compared nutritional values among unsweetened versions of the four types of plant-based milk products and found they all have benefits and drawbacks. But the study concluded soy came the closest to matching cow's milk in its ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates. It also had the most comparable amounts of potassium and phosphorus.
"Though they are popularly advertised as healthy and wholesome, little research has been done in understanding the nutritional implications of consuming these (dairy alternative) beverages in short term and long term. Further, consumers associate these alternatives to be a direct substitute of cow's milk which might not be true in all cases," the researchers noted.
According to a recent report from Mintel, non-dairy milk sales in the U.S. increased 61% during the past five years and were projected to hit $2.11 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, sales of cow's milk have dropped 15% since 2012 to an estimated $16.12 billion last year. While traditional milk retains the biggest market share by far, it's evident that plant-based varieties are encroaching on its turf.
As consumer demand for plant-based milks grows — and milk allergies and lactose intolerance become more common — nutritional comparisons are being made among these functional beverage choices. Last year, pea-based milk brand Ripple developed a retro-style game to convince consumers that its product is nutritionally superior to all other nut and plant-based alternatives and even to traditional dairy milk.
Interestingly, Ripple didn't compare its product against soy milk — possibly because soy milk's health benefits are nearly identical to pea-based milk. Soy milk contains eight grams of protein, like pea milk, and 45% of daily calcium.
The advantages of soy range from being low in fat, high in protein, and having no cholesterol. Its drawbacks include being low in calcium — unless fortified with it — and potentially causing allergies. In addition, 93% of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, which is an issue for some consumers.
Still, soy's familiarity and perceived health benefits continue to drive sales for producers such as Hain Celestial, maker of WestSoy, Soy Dream and Rice Dream, and WhiteWave Foods, the manufacturer of Silk and So Delicious. These companies have enjoyed healthy growth, fueled in part by new product development and marketing of their plant-based goods.
As more sources for non-dairy beverage alternatives such as peanuts, bananas, macadamia nuts, hemp and oats crop up on the market, it will be interesting to see what holds consumer interest. Soy milk producers would be wise to push their products' nutritional advantage and perhaps even include comparisons to competing varieties on packaging. If not, soy could soon find it has become the next cow-based milk — still popular but under attack from new trendy products.